By Brian Robin
Eleanor Burgess Maneuvers Many Lanes of Creativity
“Pick a lane and stay in it. …”
That’s the message Eleanor Burgess’ agent at Creative Arts Agency keeps telling the versatile playwright. Keep that talented voice, but find your creative niche and turn that voice into a sledgehammer, beating that niche into the ground.
The problem here is Burgess’ talented voice defies niches—her unceasing mind and never-ending curiosity defy conventional playwriting. Picking a lane means pulling off the creative ramps that spur Burgess to write plays like Galilee, 34, her historical play about life for one group of people in ancient Judea under the Roman Empire. The play is one of the readings for the 25th Pacific Playwrights Festival, May 5-7.
Simply put, Burgess can’t pick a lane because, well, her mind won’t let her—and therefore, that talented voice won’t come along for the ride. This is why Burgess’ works run the gamut from history to a sequel of Death of a Salesman (Wife of a Salesman) to a look at modern technology (Start Down), to an exploration of the adoption process (Mocha). She’s currently taking the history lane further back in time, writing a play about a tribe of cavemen bringing their world to life.
“A lot of it for me is when I sit down to write a play, I want to do something I haven’t done before,” she said. “For me personally, it’s a massive and emotional investment. If I spend three years getting invested with something, I want something to be new. The thing I have the most excitement and energy about is something I haven’t done before and something where I don’t know what the answer is.
“I write plays to try exploring what I don’t know before. I don’t write plays because I have an answer. I write plays because I have confusion and I’m troubled. … Structurally and from a writing perspective, I like writing in a style I haven’t written in before. I love to explore new subjects and I love to try writing theatrically. If I’m not exploring something new, I don’t have the uncertainty or the curiosity or the playfulness or obsession to go all the way with a project.”
In a roundabout way, this is how Burgess became a writer. Growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, Burgess described her parents as “nerdy.” They’d take Burgess and her sister to the plethora of historic places all over the region: Lexington and Concord, Henry David Thoreau’s replica cabin at Walden Pond, Louisa May Alcott’s and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s houses and, of course, the numerous stops along Boston’s famous Freedom Trail.
This is how you forge a path toward never-ending curiosity about the world around you. Burgess never had a lane, other than the one taking her to her next nugget of knowledge.
“The ideas these things we think of as Big-Voice History were just done by people—human beings who had insecurities, foibles, doubts and rivalries. They had pettiness and uncertainty, grief and confusion,” she said. “I think when you go to old places, that really comes alive. I think that was always a part of my childhood. History is human, history is not grand. It’s not a fresco, not a pageant. It’s just human beings making choices and trying to live their lives and that felt very real and very constant throughout my childhood.”
The lane led Burgess to Yale for a history degree, then to NYU’s/Tisch School of the Arts for a masters in Dramatic Writing. Not surprisingly, it led her to a teaching job in London, where she joked she could afford to see “23 plays a week.” This filled in the next gap in Burgess’ knowledge bank, because when she was in high school and not traipsing across various touchstones of American history, Burgess was asking her parents to take her to plays.
She taught history to middle schoolers and high schoolers at a private school, but along the way, Burgess never lost the curiosity she developed seeing plays. Her time in London, where she could go to plays and meet the playwrights excited her like few other things did.
“Once I sort of realized it (playwriting) was a thing people were actively doing, I was really drawn to it,” she said. “It didn’t seem like a job when I was growing up. I started writing my first play, which took me a while. At first, I did this on weekends and over summers. Eventually, I got to a point where I realized writing and teaching are vocations. You put a tremendous amount of time and effort and sweat into them.
“I realized I couldn’t do them at a level I wanted to do them. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t do the writing.”
Writing Galilee, 34 is an intellectual tonic for Burgess, one that happened without a good inspiration story, other than half her family being Jewish and the other half Christian. Not that it was an easy tonic to swallow; she said it was the slowest first draft of a play she ever wrote. Part of that was the pandemic, part of that was Burgess giving birth. But another reason it took her more than a year to finish the first draft was the amount of research she faced.
“I had to research Jewish and Christian theology, the Roman Empire, the history of the Kingdom of Judea, the daily life of the Hellenistic Era in the Roman Empire,” she said. “There’s a big cast here and so many characters to do right by. … I had to figure out how to handle the Resurrection. I didn’t have an answer and I couldn’t keep writing until I had an answer. So, I had to sit on that for a few months until I had an answer.”
Writing Galilee, 34 took Burgess on a historical and spiritual trip on a runaway coaster. She pondered various elements of theology that have challenged theologians and philosophers for centuries. How do you make characters like the Virgin Mary, Saul of Tarsus and Jesus real, tangible humans and not Big Voice History figures?
“That was a jumping-off point that led me think about these people,” she said. “What if they were human? What if you’re a human encountering the divine and struggling to hold on to the divine and struggling to figure out what it looks like in real life? What if there’s no angels singing and clouds opening up? What if it wasn’t revealed and they’re humans and they have to figure out what to do and they disagree about what to do? The stakes couldn’t be higher.
“What should a human being do with their life? They’re trying to figure it out together, and on the other hand, they disagree.”
Burgess leaves audiences thinking about how to square that historic and spiritual circle. At the same time, she loves staying in a creative lane that allows her to figure out there are no easy ways to do that.